Within English museums, less than one visitor per day on average

Almost everyone knows Stonehenge, the Tower of London and the Natural History Museum. Every year, Visit England’s annual statistics reveal the millions who flock to explore the country’s best-known attractions. But what about the twenty or so people at the other end of the list, who receive fewer than 300 visitors per year?

From the outside, the Bay Museum on Canvey Island in Essex looks more like a toilet block than a trove of military treasures.

Once a Cold War magnetic monitoring station, this small, whitewashed building was plucked from a possible future as an ice cream parlor and converted into a museum.

Inside, almost every bit of wall space is filled with military artifacts from both world wars, including weapons, medals, uniforms and models.

One of the main exhibits is an engine cylinder from a B-17 that crashed at Canvey Point in 1944.One of the main exhibits is an engine cylinder from a B-17 that crashed at Canvey Point in 1944.

One of the main exhibits is an engine cylinder from a B-17 that crashed at Canvey Point in 1944 (BBC)

One of the main exhibits is an engine cylinder from a B-17 that crashed at Canvey Point in 1944.

Rain or shine, the team of volunteers here – three of whom own the exhibits – aim to be open every Sunday all year round.

With around 200 visitors a year, The Bay Museum was Visit England’s 18th least visited attraction.

Some days not a single visitor comes through the door.

On other days there can be a small surge, with people coming from as far away as the US, Argentina and Nigeria.

Martin DanielMartin Daniel

Martin Daniell tells how the museum recently received visitors from Ukraine and Russia on the same day (BBC)

“Recently we had someone from Ukraine and another from Russia – on the same day,” says museum treasurer Martin Daniell.

“It’s an absolute pleasure when we get people who have come a long way, usually people from Essex and London.

“People often say they expect to spend ten minutes here. Three hours later they’re often still there and suddenly they’re worried about the parking lot.”

David ThorndikeDavid Thorndike

David Thorndike was a 10-year-old boy when the B-17s collided near Canvey (BBC)

“It’s all about remembrance and education,” says David Thorndike, who was a 10-year-old boy when the B-17s collided at Canvey and remembers the immediate aftermath.

“We recently had a young woman thank us for helping her with her GCSE work. They were so interested in the museum which makes it very worthwhile.”

extract from the visitors bookextract from the visitors book

A younger visitor recently thanked the museum for helping her with her GCSE studies (BBC)

Some museums with the fewest annual visitors declined to speak to the BBC, fearing they would suddenly attract more people than they could accommodate.

Susanna Chancellor, current beneficiary of the Stoke Park Settlement Trust, is perfectly happy with the modest visitor numbers she sees each year.

Northamptonshire’s Stoke Park Pavilions in Stoke Bruerne, Towcester, received around 140 visitors in 2022.

It may not sound huge, but it was a 520% ​​increase on the 20 guests Visit England recorded in 2021.

Stoke Park PavilionsStoke Park Pavilions

Today the house (and its later replacement) is gone. However, the two pavilions, whose design is attributed to Inigo Jones, still stand (Stoke Park Pavilions)

The place where the two pavilions are located has a royal past.

In 1541, the 400-acre deer park at Stoke Bruerne was acquired by Henry VIII, who used it for hunting together with his second wife Anne Boleyn.

Then, in 1629, the ill-fated Charles I gave it to Sir Frances Crane to settle a debt.

Under Sir Frances the medieval hunting lodge was replaced by an impressive new country house, the first in England built in the Italian Palladian style.

Connected by colonnades were two pavilions: one a chapel; the other, a library.

Today the house (and its later replacement) is gone. However, the two pavilions, whose design is attributed to Inigo Jones, still stand.

Most visitors who come to see the pavilions are local residents, hikers or people with a love for architecture.

“Last year we had a couple of busloads of architecture students visit,” says Ms Chancellor. “We also get people along the canal who would like to come and have a look. And we have already had a few visits from caravan club members.

“Being between Northampton and Milton Keynes, we get quite a few visits from people who live in the area. Some people didn’t know we were here before, which is nice.

“We only have one toilet,” she says.

“And we have no café, no shop and no entrance fee – and visitors seem to appreciate a bit of peace and quiet.”

Longthorpe TowerLongthorpe Tower

Visit England says the country’s smallest museums are “a crucial and valuable part” of its attractions offering (BBC)

Places like The Bay Museum and Stoke Park Pavilions are “a crucial and valuable part” of the range of attractions available, says Andrew Stokes, director of Visit England.

“From our renowned museums, galleries, castles and historic houses to our beautiful gardens, rural, nature and outdoor attractions, there really is an attraction to suit every taste and budget,” he adds.

But can our smallest attractions offer something that household names cannot?

Karyn at Longthorpe TowerKaryn at Longthorpe Tower

Visitors usually get a tailor-made tour of Longthorpe Tower, says volunteer Karyn Hillier (BBC)

Karyn Hillier, a volunteer guide at Longthorpe Tower, Peterborough, believes the answer is a resounding “yes”.

The tower, which houses one of the most complete sets of 14th-century murals in Northern Europe, attracted just 183 visitors per year at the most recent count.

But each of these visitors will receive a customized tour of the building, Ms. Hillier says.

“We vary the information based on the type of group we have,” she says.

“When we have children, we will focus on the animals and the bonnacon (a mythical bovine animal that emits burning poop), and we have coloring for children to do.

‘We also get historians and people from outside Peterborough who know something about the tower and its history.

“We’re trying to give an idea of ​​what life was like for the Thorpe family when this was built.”


Volunteer Alan Brimmell says many people have been “surprised” by their visit to the tower (BBC)

But for those who do make it to Longthorpe, says fellow volunteer Alan Brimmell, the offer is something “unique to the country”.

“Most existing medieval paintings are in churches, cathedrals and monasteries.

‘This was someone’s status symbol and it is purely a coincidence that it has been preserved, because most have not.

“People are surprised when they leave.”

Amanda Johnson, who has five years of volunteer work to her nameAmanda Johnson, who has five years of volunteer work to her name

Volunteer Amanda Johnson says some visitors have lived in the area all their lives without realizing the tower was right under their noses (BBC)

Like many of the country’s smallest museums, Longthorpe is only open on weekends (during the warmer months) or when guides are available.

Volunteer Amanda Johnson says the tower often “attracts people from all over the world who come to see specific things,” including medievalists and art historians.

But the greatest source of pride for those who keep England’s smallest attractions running comes not from the miles a visitor travels, but from local discoveries.

“We have people who have lived in the area all their lives and didn’t realize there was a tower here,” Ms Johnson said.

“Most people who come in to look around are quite impressed.”

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